Social media: creating improved outcomes in medical practices

social-media-medical-doctor2
Time to read: 4 minutes.
Exceptionally successful doctors and medical professionals are applying social media tools to create more meaningful relationships with — and positive outcomes for — patients.  Are you a pharmaceutical company looking to help physicians achieve these goals?  A doctor?  An adviser to medical practices?  I’ll show you how to quickly plan and implement social media tools in ways that produce meaningful patient outcomes.

Patients demand more from doctors today than ever before.  But too often they receive little if any “quality time” with their docs.  Our current medical system simply doesn’t support meaningful doctor-patient relationships.  Rather than fight the system, thriving medical practices are applying Internet technologies that create qualitative patient outcomes and strengthen patient-physician bonds in measurable ways.

In other words some medical offices are using affordable, accessible Web technology to supplement the weakening patient-doctor relationship.  How?  For starters, by distributing vital information to patients in personalized, customized ways.

Quick example:  A physician’s office may take 6 to 8 calls per day dealing with arthritis treatment.  Pediatricians take calls dealing with asthma, allergies, etc.  Doctors simply don’t have the time to personally take calls or respond to patient inquiries.  Office staff may or may not step in to provide patients with medication advice, general information about the disease, treatment, etc.  Often the patient-doctor relationship suffers.

Solution example:  Use mobile Web and/or social media technologies to do the heavy lifting — to deliver desperately needed information to patients in a personalized, high-touch manner.

So — here’s what medical practices can do, starting tomorrow, to begin creating more meaningful patient outcomes using Web media.

Organize people and technology to support desired outcomes

Looking for a successful model?  The US AirForce (yes, the Air Force!) provides an outstanding example of how to organize a group of people with a common mission around an objective — using simple forms of communications (email, blogs, social media, etc.) as a tool.  They’re using a discover-evaluate-respond method.

Discover:  An inter-disciplinary team evaluates each inbound communication.  They also monitor discussions mentioning the Air Force across the vast Web using simple, free tools like Google Alerts.

Evaluate: Team members evaluate each opportunity for validity/authenticity (is it a real person making the comment or question?),  strength (does the opinion matter?), etc.

Respond: Appropriate team members respond in a pre-determined manner based on “rules of engagement” that the Air Force has committed to as an organization (just as a patient care provider/practice would).  Not all situations earn the attention of a staff member.  Similarly, if a patient is just being a trouble-maker they may not earn a response; however, if it’s a “squeaky wheel” situation where they need help a response is mandated.

Here’s how to start.

A weekly, cross-functional meeting is the first step.

Create your “rules of engagement.”  Start simple by addressing routine patient inquiries — deciding on how to gather up, process and respond to them.  How will you accept patient inquiries? (telephone, email, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)  How will you respond, within what time-frame and under what limited circumstances?  How will you set expectations among patients for your new communications program? (share the rules of engagement via promises you make to patients)

It’s critical to decide what is a “routine inquiry” and what is “special.”  Routine inquiries like disease treatment information often does not require a physician’s time.  Yet these majority of situations are an opportunity to strengthen the patient-doctor bond.  Digital media simply gives medical offices the ability to scale time more efficiently and deliver a personalized outcome.

Resist the urge to over-automate (de-humanize) and keep the focus on qualitative experiences

Again, most marketers make this mistake — they see Amazon.com sending out highly relevant emails based on a sophisticated “product suggestion engine” and think they can do it themselves for $19.95 a month using a simple auto-responder system with pre-programmed rules.

A lesson can be learned from traditional marketers — who often fail to apply social Web tools in ways that produce qualitative results.   Most marketers tend to focus on interacting in mass — focusing on number of emails blasted, Twitter tweets broadcast, Facebook friend connections made.   Success is in numbers.

Physicians and medical practitioners cannot afford to interact quantitatively.   Qualitative interactions foster a personal, human touch.  A meaningful bond.

Get physicians/specialists involved — when it makes sense

Yes, special situations may arise that require physician/specialist intervention… such as when a patient has already received basic treatment information and is seeking more in-depth research on the topic.  A minute of a physician’s time may be required to locate the most up-to-date cases or research.  Practitioners can set aside 30 minutes a day to process that fraction of total inquiries that demands their attention.

Realize and act on patients’ expectation of value added, personalized services

Patients — like consumers of products and services — don’t just want more free, high-value services.  They expect them!  In the case of medicine it’s very information-focused.  How can your practice deliver?

Comments

  1. says

    Jeff,

    I think using social media to engage a practice’s patient base and turning into a community is definitely a great idea. However, I disagree with your suggestion that using SM can create qualitative patient outcomes in measurable ways.

    You mention that thriving practices are using social media technologies that create qualitative patient outcomes and strengthen patient-physician bonds in measurable ways. I’d like to see or read an example. Specifically of how they’ve been able to create qualitative patient outcomes in measurable ways.

    And the Air Force’s is not a good example. The Air Force’s chart is an essence a simple guideline that helps them decide how they ought to respond. It has nothing to do with creating meaningful patient outcomes using Web media.

    I think in theory, your suggestion for medical practices to embrace social media in an effort to meet the needs of patients seeking information is great. In our practice, we use social media to open the lines of communication between patients and us, as well as broaden our message about preventive wellness. And as a result, we are building a stronger community.

    But practically speaking, it is not nearly as easy and simple as you describe. It requires a lot of time, effort and commitment.

    @PediatriInc

  2. says

    Hi, Brandon…
    Thanks for offering constructive thoughts. One company creating measurable results for physicians, dentists and medical offices is http://www.fanminder.com. They’re literally connecting with practice & office management systems to allow office staff to schedule mobile SMS reminders for patients — to take medication, visit informative Web sites, be on time for their appointment, etc. Many such benefits create improved tangible and intangible patient outcomes — and can be tracked back to the use of their Web-delivered application.

    Some applications of this technology work… some fail and some are just plain mediocre.

    I share the Air Force’s diagram and approach in a general way. It’s a way for readers to understand the basic framework of managing interactive processes in a productive way. Correct, this is not directly applicable to medical practices but demonstrates a clear means to an end. That is, creating meaningful outcomes rather than just “listening” to what customers, investors, patients, employees, constituents have to say in a vacuum and calling it a day.

    Candidly and respectfully, I believe that using SM to open the lines of communications, broaden messages and community building are largely non-measurable and often chronic time-wasters. It’s what most offices seem to be doing. They stop when, as you point out, the real work needs to start.

    What I’m lobbying for, and providing basic guidelines around, is how to actually create the outcomes.

    I noticed you were not critical of my calls for:
    A weekly, cross-functional meeting as a first step.
    Resisting the urge to over-automate (de-humanize).
    Getting physicians/specialists involved.
    Acting on patients’ expectations.

    Does this mean you agree? Because this is my “how to” in my article… not the USAF portion.

  3. says

    With regards to your guidelines I think in theory, they are good guidelines. However, practically, I have to disagree.

    Most, if not all medical practices are burden with an immense amount of work and are staffed as thin as can be. And when you have a waiting room full of patients, stacks and stacks of labs to review, letters to sign, statements to send out, insurance claims to process, and 100’s of phone calls to answer (with patients that need more info on their condition, prescription refills, prior-auth request, insurance forms to fill out etc.), organizing cross functional meetings and getting a doc’s perspective and meeting specifically the needs (even with something like Fanminder) of patients is just not practical for many medical offices, particularly those in primary care. You mention that the doc can set aside 30 minutes… many doc’s don’t even have that much time to schedule their lunch break.

    Now, it terms of appointment reminders, something like Fanminder can be very helpful and it is a nice service to offer. We use a similar system called ReminderPro. It certainly helps us with many administrative type tasks, but to say it helps us improve health (outcomes), that is a bit overreaching. One can potentially argue that less missed appointments improves a patient’s health because they are treated more than they would otherwise, but to say that because of something like Fanminder a patient is more compliant with their medication seems like wishful thinking. Again, theoretically, sounds good. But I’d like to see evidence if that is the case.

    With regards to our practice’s social media initiatives… many of the social media initiatives are non-measurable and if not done with a specific intent, can be a huge time waster.

    However, I approach it like a hotel concierge. A hotel concierge doesn’t really provide a tangible ROI for their services to the hotel per se, but the benefit the concierge provides is immensely valuable to the guest.

    Our social media efforts accomplishes among other things:

    Maintain a conversation with our patients

    Keep our patients informed

    Provides additional insight to potential patients about our practice, our office and more important, our docs.

    For example, let’s say a patient is looking for a peds office, comes across our webpage (or is referred to our webpage) and sees the usual stuff a medical office webpage has. Then decides to Google our name or my doc’s name and finds we have a Twitter and Facebook account. She checks out Facebook and sees how we engage with our patients, etc. Compare that to the medical office down the street that just has YellowPage.com listing. Waste of time? I think not.

    I love this type of discussion, thus can go on and on. But I’m going leave it up to here so I don’t bore your readers to death.

    Thanks for the reply Jeff and keep up the good work. I found your blog today and will be adding it to my RSS reader.

  4. says

    Thanks for the additional thoughts, Brandon. With all due respect here’s an alternate view on your example. Would you find it plausible for the woman in your example to assign trivial value to what you consider to be high value? (all the “engagement”)

    If I understand you, you’re suggesting that “engagement” is inherently valuable based mostly on how you”re engaging while others are buying Yellow Pages ads. This is very similar to how most marketers/brands use social media. It’s unorganized but somehow inherently valuable simply because they’re doing it.

    In other words, value is assigned to number of Twitter followers or Facebook friends (quantitative novelties) — not sales or leads (qualitative business outcomes). It’s easy to generate lots of friends or followers. Not so easy to create sales and leads. Similarly, it’s easy to keep patients informed or have conversations with them, not so easy to create measurable outcomes.

    Right? Ultimately someone has to pay for investment in social media — IF they want a real return… and what I see here is also worrisome. Most of the time it’s a part-time hobby of someone in the office and has, hence, very low expectations assigned to it. The results are typically mediocre in my opinion (I respect that we each have different definition of “valuable result”).

    I recently consulted with a large pharmaceutical company that wants to invest in social media for docs — helping them “create improved patient outcomes.” (their words) They told me much of the same — that docs and staff are pressed for time. My take was that they are looking for a silver bullet SM technology that somehow requires no real organization and no real time investment to create stronger relationships with patients.

    My response was the same: Quantitative novelties are easy to create. Qualitative outcomes are not and require time. Candidly, I think they were disappointed with my answers. Wouldn’t be the first time!

    My only real point (counter-point) here is that investing time in organizing is not, I argue, unrealistic or theoretical. Organizing is the only way to create meaningful outcomes beyond “this office is ‘engaging’ and the other isn’t” — because I just don’t think that kind of effect on a patient is *as* valuable as having a qualitative effect on their relationship.

    I don’t think a patient’s qualitative assessment of a practice is effected by ‘how engaged they appear to be with patients using social media.’ I think it has to be an actual outcome (‘I received this from my doctor / therapist / doctor’s office and it helped me cope, become well faster’ etc.)

    Yes, that can ‘just happen’ based on information that was, essentially, broadcast on the Web using a form of social media technology. But more realistically it happens based on an organized effort. At least in my experience this is what separates the great companies (practices??) from the average — their ability to create consistently remarkable experiences for customers.

    Yes, I’m also subscribed to your feed! Your blog is extremely useful for my research. I’ve already learned a thing or two and will keep in touch. Much to learn!

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